Winter Storm Takes Toll on Timber

Ice storms that blew the Southeast two weeks ago hit trees hard, and foresters are urging growers to inspect for damage and keep an eye out for pests that prey on stressed trees.

Even the famous Eisenhower Tree, a 65-foot loblolly pine on Augusta National’s 17th hole suffered so much damage, golf course managers were forced to cut it down.

It’s too early to estimate the total amount lost, experts say, but there is a range of damage – from minor limb breaks to complete destruction – left behind from a sheet of ice that encased a swath of central Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina before heading north.

Winter Storm Pax killed three people in northern Texas and two in Mississippi, but the storm’s destructive freeze seemed to get worse for trees as it moved east the week of Feb. 9-15.

“The damage varies, but it seems to get worse from west to east,” said David Dickens, a University of Georgia professor and expert in forest productivity. “Some landowners got lucky and had only moderate damage, but some had so much damage, their best bet is to clear cut and start over.”

Timber growers in east Georgia and South Carolina have compared the 2014 storm damage to an ice event a decade earlier, when the timber industry in South Carolina suffered $95 million in damage.

As landowners try to decide whether to cut, thin or do nothing, experts are offering advice.

In his nearly 30 years in forestry (beginning at Clemson and now at UGA) Dickens has made two observations:

“First, if a loblolly pine has at least three live branches after an ice storm, it will continue to live but not grow at the rate that it would if it had all its pre-storm living branches. ” You may be able to assume the same with slash or longleaf pine.

“The second propensity is for leaning pines to straighten up over a growing season after an ice storm. If a loblolly or slash pine is over 30 feet in height and is leaning more than 45 degrees, then (it) will rarely straighten back up after a growing season. If loblolly or slash pines are 30 feet tall or less and leaning less than 45 degrees, then there is a good probability that those trees will straighten back up after one growing season.”

Landowners should check their stands now and begin to assess the damage, Dickens said.

If damage is moderate – 30 to 40 percent of trees impacted, but 150 trees/acre in good condition – thinning may be the way to go.

With heavy damage – less than 50 trees/acre remaining – an owner likely will have to clear cut.

Beetles tend to infest stressed trees, but the pests don’t become active until spring, so a grower has to weigh the damage and the risk.

“It’s a tough judgment call. There is no blanket prescription for beetles,” Dickens said.

Owners with minor or moderate damage should be cautious in the 2014 season, he advised, because an infestation is more likely with damaged trees.

“Every two to three weeks, you should be out in the stand looking for beetle activity,” he said.

And be prepared not to get as high a price as timber floods the market over the next few weeks.

“The demand has not changed, but we will have increased supply,” Dickens said.

Winter Storm Pax also demonstrated that slash pine shouldn’t be planted north of its native range, Dickens said.

“Loblolly had less damage, but slash doesn’t handle intermittent ice well.”

Landowners in east Georgia can get some answers to their questions at an upcoming meeting organized by the forestry commission, extension service and others. The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Washington County Farm Bureau office. Email Brent Allen at [email protected] with questions or the register.